01 August 2008

Riding the High Country With McCrea, Scott and Mariette Hartley (sigh!)

In June the AFI released its ten best films in ten various genres. The omissions were as numerous and obvious as fleas on white cat. One that particularly stuck in my craw was their top ten Westerns. Yesterday I enjoyed Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962) and was reminded that this classic did not make the AFI's list.

If you've never seen it, don't hesitate to rent it or catch it next time it's on TCM. Thank me later. If you have seen it you likely agree it belongs in any discussion of great Westerns. It has all the best elements of a good Western. Scenery, action, moral dilemmas, awful villains and complicated heroes. Ride the High Country boasts two great aging actors playing two aging relics of the old west, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. Mariette Hartley made her film debut as "the girl." Hartley would gain her greatest fame for the Polaroid commercials she did opposite James Garner. But she certainly deserved acclaim for her performance here. Not incidentally, the then 22 year old Hartley was absolutely gorgeous.

The requisite bad guys were as bad as they come with John Anderson, Warren Oates and L.Q Jones leading the way. Oates and Jones would appear numerous times for Peckinpah. A newcomer named Ron Starr was Heck Longtree the young buck with a lot to learn from McCrea and Scott, who fell for Hartley's Elsa Knudsen. Surprisingly Starr had a very brief career. He was far and away the second most famous R. Starr of the early 1960's.

McCrea played Steve Judd an old lawman hired by a bank for the seemingly impossible task of delivering gold from a mining camp through country riddled with outlaws. He hires an old compadre, Gill Westrum (Scott) and his young protege Longtree to help him. Westrum and Longtree have other ideas for the gold. Along the way they come across Ms. Knudsen and her Holy Roller father. Elsie desperately wants to escape her father's farm and his repressive ways, especially since she has a beau at the mining camp. Off go the four with their different goals. Once they arrive at the camp, further complications ensue.

This was only Peckinpah's second feature film. The film's violence lacks the spurts of blood that would be a trademark but it is harsh and real nonetheless The villains are appropriately menacing and just as ugly mean as rattlers.

Ride the High Country works on a number of levels. Perhaps most of all as a morality tale. But it is also about the ending of an era. When McCrea rides into town at the beginning for the film people are lining the streets in great excitement, he doffs his camp in appreciation. However a cop shoos him away, the people are there to watch a race between a camel and two horses. There are also those new fangled horseless carriages about. It's a great beginning to a great film.

Also look for a fine performances by Edgar Buchannan (uncle Joe on Petticoat junction) as a drunken justice of the peace, Byron Foulger as the bank president and Jenie Jackson whose performance as a madam cannot be topped.

Oh and here's a baker's dozen of the best Westerns I've ever seen.

The Wild Bunch (1969) Peckinpah
The Searchers (1958) Ford
Stagecoach (1939) Ford
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Hill
Dances With Wolves (1990) Costner
The Big Trail (1930) Walsh
Westward the Women (1951) Wellman
Ride the High Country (1962) Peckinpah
My Darling Clementine (1946) Ford
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Ford
Little Big Man (1970) Penn
The Naked Spur (1953) Mann
The Westerner (1940) Wyler


Bucko said...

This appeared on my Western radar, and I'm glad to read your very good review of a classic that should be on that AFI list. Perhaps it wasn't on the list because High Country doesn't have the alluring spurts of blood, and because unlike other westerns that portray the passing of the West (such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) the heroes do go gently into the good night. Not as thrilling, but more meaningful, I'd say.

Shane is one of my current favorites. I discounted it for a while but just viewed it again and love how the little boy's view of the drifter as knight in shining buckskin imbues the whole movie with a glossy sheen.

Also all Anthony Mann/James Stewart are high on my list.

And for more B-movie flavor, Randolph Scott makes all the right moves.

If you do any more western movie reviews, let us know at blog.cowboylands.net. We have some worst movie lists, and while many opinions about what is best, no list as such yet.

Anonymous said...

How could you leave off Sergio Leone? The Western was just about dead when he re-invented it in the '60s.
Here's a list that doesn't use any of your (otherwise excellent) choices:
For A Few Dollars More (1965) Leone
The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (1966) Leone
Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) Leone
Duck, You Sucker (1971) Leone
Red River (1848) Hawks
Rio Bravo (1959) Hawks
The Tin Star (1957) Mann
Lonesome Dove (the First series)
Ulzana's Raid (1972) Aldrich
Bad Company (1972) Benton

Tommy P48 said...

You are on the money. "Ride the High Country" is a near perfect piece of film-making, a really great western. It is a fitting and just finale to the careers of the two best B-Western film actors of the late forties and fifties, the much underrated Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. Millions of us enjoyed their movies and saw them as heroes. Thanks for you righteous comments.

Maritze said...

I am sorry but any ‘Best Westerns’ list that doesn’t have at least one Sergio Leone movie in the top 10 -should be in the top 3 actually- is not worth dust.

Richard Hourula said...

Why are you apologizing? What if a person isn't a big fan of Leone? Why would you wast your time posting something like that? Why is dust so de-valued?